After another back injury, will we ever see dominant J.J. Watt again?

Over the last four seasons, J.J. Watt was building a case as the greatest defensive player ever.

After a solid rookie season, Watt exploded. The Houston Texans defensive end had 69 sacks over the past four seasons. He won three NFL defensive player of the year awards. Nobody can match that four-year run. Not Reggie. Not Deacon. Not Butkus. Not L.T. And when Watt was given his third defensive player of the year award last February, he was only 26 years old. Another four or five years at that level, and the greatest ever argument would have probably been over.

Maybe 2016, and the back injury that sent him to injured reserve after three games, is just a small bump in the road for Watt. Maybe his story is more Joe Montana — who had many good years left after doctors suggested retirement following back surgery in 1986 — than Terrell Davis, whose rightful place in NFL history was lost after knee injuries cut his career short.

Watt had surgery to repair a herniated disc in July. The specifics of his recent injury and the treatment for it are unclear. The good news is that, medically, Watt’s back issues don’t appear to be so bad they’d threaten his career or take a crippling bite out of his effectiveness.

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In 2011, Reuters published a story based on a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine which declared back surgeries for NFL linemen aren’t usually career ending. The study said among NFL linemen who had surgery to repair a disc, 81 percent came back to play at least one game.

“They aren’t broken, they aren’t more fragile after surgery,” orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph K. Weistroffer told Reuters. “Four out of five who have surgery not only return to play, they return to starter positions.”

Dr. David Chao, a former San Diego Chargers doctor who is active on Twitter @ProFootballDoc, said even without the specifics it’s a “huge leap” to think that Watt would need a serious fusion surgery or that the injury is career-threatening.

“J.J. Watt will still have a career, I believe, going forward,” Chao told the Houston Chronicle. “The question is: Will he be NFL Defensive Player of the Year caliber J.J. Watt or just very good J.J. Watt? That’s the question that remains unanswered until there’s more medical detail on what happened to him.”

Although that seems mostly positive, there’s a risk with any surgery, especially when your profession revolves around battling 300-pound men at full speed (and in Watt’s case, usually two and sometimes three of those 300-pound men on any play).

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had surgery for a herniated disc in 2013. Gronkowski, who missed his final college season due to back surgery, did return to his old form. But a Boston Globe story from 2013 outlined the risks.

“Offensive and defensive linemen — and Gronk is included, because he does some blocking — are at the greatest risk for developing a poor outcome after this kind of surgery,” Dr. Wellington Hsu, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told the Globe. “They play the game in a squatting position, and have a lot of force on their back when they hit 300-pound defenders.”

Former NFL offensive lineman and current analyst Ross Tucker was quoted in that Globe story saying he was never the same after his back surgery.

“The truth is, it was a full year before I really felt good, and I never felt 100 percent again,” Tucker said. “I played three years after my surgery, but I was just a little bit less explosive. I never felt like my back was brand new.”

And when we’re talking about Watt’s ability to regain his all-time great form, a little less explosion could make a big difference. All signs indicate he’ll come back and play, and he’ll probably be a very good player when he returns. But will we ever see peak Watt again? Can he pick up where he left off and put together a few more seasons that would put him on a pedestal above Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White or whoever your pick is as the greatest defensive player in NFL history? Next season Watt will be 28, and NFL players age fast. Especially those like Watt who are magnets for extra blocking attention.

And Watt seemed to understand that his career might not be the longest, even before the back injury. In a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story, he said, “I know how little time I have in this game” and also “I don’t see myself as a 15-year NFL player.”

Maybe in 2017 Watt will pick up where he left off and again look like one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Gronkowski did, after all. So did Montana and others. But that path for Watt is a lot more foggy now than it was in July, when we first heard about his back injury.

J.J. Watt is expected to go on injured reserve after re-injuring his back (AP)
J.J. Watt is expected to go on injured reserve after re-injuring his back (AP)

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!
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Yahoo Fantasy Hockey: Secret to drafting NHL goalies

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(Ed. Note: We’re once again pleased to partner with Dobber Hockey to provide fantasy hockey insight throughout the NHL season. Please welcome Steve Laidlaw, the Managing Editor of DobberHockey, as your new fantasy hockey smarty-pants!)

BY STEVE LAIDLAW

Goaltending is arguably the most important position in fantasy hockey. In standard Yahoo! leagues goaltending accounts for 40 percent of the scoring, yet goaltenders only make up 17 percent of your actual roster. That means you are counting on a substantial output from a small number of players. Locking down solid goaltending is a great way to ensure you will be competitive this season.

Figuring out who to take is the trick. Over the last 10 seasons, only one goalie has managed to produce at a top-five level for more than two consecutive seasons. That goalie was Henrik Lundqvist, and he has since spent the past three seasons ranking 13th overall. Goaltenders simply do not get much time at the top so simply going by last season’s stats may not be the wise choice.

Goalies are also victims of circumstance. They are intrinsically tied to the fate of their team. Sure, a goalie can usually boast a decent save percentage if getting peppered by over 30 shots per game, but he isn’t likely to win many games or get too many shutouts. Acquiring a goalie on a top team is huge but that requires forecasting abilities no prognosticator is good at. Even in the era of parity, the previous season’s standings do a better job of predicting current standings than anything any individual writer can come up with. Keep in mind last season’s playoff squads as you draft for goaltending.

A very useful strategy to help you rise above the volatility of goaltending is to build tiered rankings. You cannot completely remove the inherent risk in goaltenders, but if you can grab a goalie from each of your top three tiers then you stand a good chance of competing with the rest of the teams in your league. More importantly, it provides a guide for when to consider drafting goaltenders. This means you can sit back and wait for the right moment to strike, while filling your skater stats.

The basic principle is to not draft a goalie from a tier that is still full, but rather to wait until a tier might get emptied out and then strike with a goalie pick out of that tier. Here are my tiered rankings for standard leagues, which you may use as a blueprint:

Tier One Rank ADP
Carey Price 4 16.1
Braden Holtby 1 9.7
Ben Bishop 2 15.2
Cory Schneider 6 27.5

Odds are you aren’t getting a top tier goalie unless you are using one of your top two picks on one. You can draft the goalie of your choice as high as round one, and hope that it causes the rest of the managers in your league to panic and start a run on goalies. This could force some managers into taking second tier goalies extremely high and allow some of the stronger skaters to slide to you a little later than they might have otherwise.

The upshot of grabbing a goalie in the first round is that you will likely have your choice of the top tier options. So if you have an affinity for a specific goalie then being the first to act gives you your pick of the litter.

However, if you have no affinity or perhaps for you have a top five pick and don’t want to burn it on a goalie, then the good news is that Schneider is frequently dropping a little lower so you can get him in the late second or early third round. Schneider’s floor is a boatload of starts with a .500 record and great rate stats. If the Devils take a leap, he instantly becomes a candidate for top fantasy goalie.

Tier Two Rank ADP
Martin Jones 5 23.8
Jonathan Quick 3 18.7
Corey Crawford 8 28.3
John Gibson 7 30.3
Jake Allen 11 41.4
Devan Dubnyk 14 65.8
Tuukka Rask 13 58.9
Henrik Lundqvist 10 33.3
Pekka Rinne 9 34.8

Our second tier is comprised primarily of entrenched starters with a long track record of success. Jones and Quick are going off the board like the top five goalies they were last season, however they were merely average in terms of save percentage. Any slippage in wins and they won’t return good value at their current ADP.

The two question marks in this tier are Gibson and Allen, whom no one is certain how they will hold up as starters. It seems like every year new starters face these questions with recent examples like Holtby, Rask, Schneider and Jones all doing just fine in their first go-around as full-time starters.

It is worth mentioning that the injury concerns with Gibson are real, but they haven’t affected his ADP if you are going with him, you must do so head first.

Rinne is going spectacularly high for a goalie that appeared to be washed up for much of last season and boasts a subpar save percentage of just 0.912 over the past four seasons. Nashville appears to be an elite team so even average play from Rinne could yield 40 wins but continued subpar play could cost Rinne his job entirely. Rinne’s massive contract likely ensures his job security but he is far from a reliable option in net.

The best value here is either Dubnyk or Rask. Rask took a tumble last season thanks to a nightmare month of October. After that Rask went 28-22-8 with a 0.918 save percentage, which is perfectly average. The Bruins defense likely won’t be improved but Rask should be able to provide average numbers across 60-65 starts, making him a dependable option.

Dubnyk, meanwhile, had essentially the exact same season as Jones, just behind a weaker team that left him with four fewer wins. Of all the second tier options Dubnyk is going the latest, offering the most possible value.

Tier Three Rank ADP
Marc-Andre Fleury 21 101
Roberto Luongo 12 63.7
Petr Mrazek 17 82.3
Jaroslav Halak 23 128.9
Steve Mason 32 172.7

Question marks surround this third tier of goaltenders because they all have elite backups champing at the bit for more starts. They are also potentially great options as starters for playoff teams.

Fleury’s ADP has been climbing over the past week following news of backup Matt Murray’s broken hand so you’ll likely need to grab him earlier than listed.

The best value here is easily Mason, who has been elite at best and average at worst since joining the Flyers. You have to like the high ceiling, high floor combination here, especially for where he is going.

Tier Four Rank ADP
Brian Elliott 15 71.6
Semyon Varlamov 25 135.3
Craig Anderson 19 95.1
Sergei Bobrovsky 24 136.4
Cam Talbot 27 155.5
Frederik Andersen 18 92
Robin Lehner 22 131.4
Mike Smith 31 178

Now we get into the entrenched starters playing for non-playoff teams. Both Elliott and Andersen are leaving tandem situations for contenders where they looked great over short stretches. Their ADP indicates fantasy managers have confidence in their ability to translate stats to their new clubs while avoiding injury. Seems risky.

The better bets on the board are Varlamov and Bobrovsky who have put up elite fantasy seasons in the past. You can wait on these options late into the draft and hope they rebound. In particular, Colorado has a new coach, which offers Varlamov a new beginning. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky is coming off an injury-riddled 2015-16 season. If healthy, Bobrovsky should return to elite status, even if the Blue Jackets don’t win too many games.

Tier Five Rank ADP
Connor Hellebuyck 36 175.9
James Reimer 26 166.2
Matt Murray 16 69.4
Thomas Greiss 20 118.9
Andrei Vasilevskiy 35 170.6
Michal Neuvirth 29 175.6
Jimmy Howard 38 156.7

In a lot of formats you can get more out of an elite backup than you can a weak starter. This is especially true if that elite backup has starter potential. The fifth tier is comprised of the top backups available.

Hellebuyck makes a great flyer because we saw what he could do in a mid-season cameo last winter. Hellebuyck excelled despite playing behind a Jets team that could never get it together. He must win the job in training camp but we should all accuse the Jets of tanking if Hellebuyck isn’t the starter on opening night.

Tier Six Rank ADP
Antti Niemi 28 160.2
Kari Lehtonen 33 181.5
Ryan Miller 30 173.5
Jacob Markstrom 41 167.1
Cam Ward 34 180.2
Eddie Lack 40 N/A
Ondrej Pavelec 42 162.4

Lastly, we have the extreme tandem starters of the league. There’s an old saying that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you have no starting quarterbacks. You can apply the same logic to goaltending and the situations in Dallas, Vancouver, Carolina and Winnipeg (should Hellebuyck start in the minors) reflect this sentiment perfectly.

Niemi and Lehtonen should pile up wins but neither one has distinguished himself in the Stars’ crease. You better have both if you are investing in this situation. It’s worth adding that the Stars likely got worse on defense following the departure of Jason Demers. This does not bode well.

*

Steve Laidlaw is the Managing Editor of DobberHockey. Follow him on Twitter @SteveLaidlaw.

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